• All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.

  • I.F. Stone

zondag 24 juli 2016

London Review of Books

A Grand and Disastrous Deceit

Philippe Sands

  • BUYThe Report of the Iraq Inquiry by John Chilcot
    HMSO, 12 vols, 6275 pp, £767.00, ISBN 1 4741 3331 2
The Iraq Inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot and composed of five privy councillors, finally published its report on the morning of 6 July, seven years and 21 days after it was established by Gordon Brown with a remit to ‘look at the run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction, so that we can learn lessons’. It offers a long and painful account of an episode that may come to be seen as marking the moment when the UK fell off its global perch, trust in government collapsed and the country turned inward and began to disintegrate.
When the report was published I was outside the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, with family members of British soldiers killed or injured during the conflict. During the day the atmosphere swung between anxiety and expectation, celebration and anger. Chilcot’s statement given that morning at a press conference inside the centre was an elegant and effective distillation of the contents of the report’s 12 volumes: 2.6 million words reduced to three thousand, spoken with significant pauses and emphases and the occasional knowing look. By the time he had finished his 25-minute speech, the mood in and around the centre had changed: contrary to most expectations, the inquiry had delivered a report of devastating clarity. Chilcot’s answer to the first question the inquiry had been asked set the scene: ‘The UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ The emphasis he put on ‘before’ and ‘not’ were an indication of what was to come. He continued:
The judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.
The government failed to achieve its stated objectives.
‘Not justified’, ‘inadequate’, ‘failure’. Chilcot then turned to the timeline, the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the move by the US and the UK to a policy of regime change. In April 2002, at a meeting at George W. Bush’s ranch in Texas, Tony Blair ‘sought a partnership’ with Bush and argued for ‘an ultimatum calling on Iraq to permit the return of weapon inspectors or face the consequences’. In July Blair told the president: ‘I will be with you, whatever.’ In September he and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, persuaded Bush to ‘take the issue of Iraq back to the UN’, and in November the Security Council adopted Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq a final opportunity to disarm or face ‘serious consequences’: further breaches would be reported to the Security Council ‘for assessment’. In December Bush concluded that since UN weapons inspections ‘would not achieve the desired result’, the US would ‘take military action in early 2003’. In January 2003 Blair concluded that war was likely, and ‘accepted the US timetable for military action by mid-March’. Bush agreed to seek a further Security Council resolution that would explicitly authorise war. By 12 March it was clear that there would be no second resolution: most Security Council members were not convinced that all peaceful options had been exhausted. The bombing began a week later, on 20 March.
Blair’s government struggled to deliver on the prime minister’s promised support. The inquiry found a litany of failings. On Iraq’s WMD capabilities, judgments were made ‘with a certainty that was not justified’. The intelligence did not establish ‘beyond doubt’ that Iraq was producing chemical or biological weapons. Iraq did not have the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon, and had not deployed long-range missiles. UK policy was based on ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ which ‘should have been’ challenged but weren’t. Military planning was settled too late and preparation was inadequate, with ‘equipment shortfalls’ and risks ‘neither properly identified nor fully exposed to ministers’. Remarkably, the cabinet never discussed the military options or their implications. Contrary to Blair’s claim, post-invasion difficulties could have been anticipated, and the risk of internal strife, Iranian involvement and al-Qaida activity ‘were each explicitly identified before the invasion’. Although aware of the inadequacy of US planning, ministers couldn’t influence it. There was no ‘clear ministerial oversight of UK planning and preparation’, and no proper plan for postwar administration, security and reconstruction. Whitehall departments failed, ministers failed; there was no ‘collective ministerial discussion’. Delays in equipment supplies by the Ministry of Defence were intolerable. The army, lacking sufficient resources, cut a deal with a militia group which had been actively targeting its forces: a ‘humiliating’ position. The war ended ‘a very long way from success’, Chilcot concludes. The intervention ‘went badly wrong’, with consequences that are continuing still. It was not ‘calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour’, and decisions taken were not ‘implemented fully’.
Chilcot didn’t mention a single positive outcome. When he finished speaking at the Queen Elizabeth Centre, the audience was stunned. Judging by his appearance when he gave a press conference a few hours later, so too was Blair. Chilcot portrayed the Iraq War as a total failure of government. Two hundred British troops had been killed and many more were injured; 150,000 Iraqis had been killed ‘and probably many more – most of them civilians’; and more than a million people had been displaced. Lives were ruined; Islamic State has emerged in the aftermath, and Britain has been diminished.
The report spreads the responsibility far and wide, covering politicians, civil servants, the military and lawyers. Yet, devastating as it is, the report does pull some punches. There is no allegation, explicitly at least, of lying, deceit or manipulation, even if the facts as presented make possible the inference.
The report’s treatment of the legality of the war – though it’s worth remembering that a lawful war is not necessarily right – and the steps that were taken in an attempt to find a legal justification, offers an opportunity to explore the inquiry’s self-restraint.In his introductory words Chilcot explains that the inquiry ‘has not expressed a view on whether military action was legal’. With no lawyer among its members, and no legal counsel to assist it, the inquiry chose to sidestep this delicate matter, claiming it was best ‘resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognised court’ (a parallel inquiry in the Netherlands, the Davids Commission, which reported in January 2010, concluded that the war had no basis in international law). Even so, Chilcot devotes much of his opening statement to matters of legality. Distinguishing between substance and process, the inquiry concludes that ‘the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.’ ‘Far from satisfactory’ is a career-ending phrase in mandarin-speak, a large boot put in with considerable force. As late as January 2003, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, told Blair that lawful war required a further Security Council resolution, before later changing his mind – his written advice of 7 March found a second resolution ‘preferable’ (rather than indispensable) – and then changing it again, offering a final view on 17 March: since Iraq was in ‘material breach’ of the existing Security Council resolutions, ‘the authority to use force under Resolution 678 was, “as a result”, revived.’ Taking the documents of 7 and 17 March together, Chilcot notes that, on the legal view finally adopted, war would be lawful only if there was evidence that Iraq had committed ‘further material breaches as specified in Resolution 1441’.
He homes in on a key question: on what basis did Blair take the decision that Iraq was in further material breach? ‘Not clear’, Chilcot answers, somewhat generously, since the evidence before the inquiry showed that Blair consulted no one but himself – not the UN weapons inspectors, not the Joint Intelligence Committee, not anyone. Playing God and weapons inspector, Blair simply made up his mind that Iraq was in material breach. ‘Given the gravity of the decision,’ Chilcot adds, ‘Lord Goldsmith should have been asked to provide written advice explaining how, in the absence of a majority in the Security Council, Mr Blair could take that decision.’ Actually, Goldsmith should have told Blair that this was not a decision he could take himself, not without expert advice. The question of material breach ‘should have been considered by a cabinet committee’, Chilcot says, ‘and then discussed by cabinet itself’. It was not.
The report goes further in its criticism of the processes followed in obtaining a legal sign-off. Senior ministers were not consulted. ‘Normal practice’ was cast aside: it was ‘unusual’ for the attorney general rather than a minister to offer an explanation in Parliament. Ministers, senior officials and the cabinet weren’t provided with the written advice of 7 March; the cabinet wasn’t told how Blair had reached his views on material breach. The cabinet ‘should have been made aware of the uncertainties’, but was not. Goldsmith should have provided full written advice explaining the legal basis for action and setting out all the risks of legal challenge.
These are forceful criticisms. They are given added heft by the inquiry’s failure to be persuaded by Blair and Straw’s claim that France was to blame ‘for the “impasse” in the UN’, and by its blunt rejection of the idea that the UK had upheld the authority of the Security Council. Rather, ‘in the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council’s authority.’

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